Bay Area Bhangra

The San Francisco Bay Guardian has a nice writeup of the Bay Area Bhangra scene. First the intro:

Bhangra's heated dhol drumming and bomb-tastic hip-hop beats are emerging as a new force in the San Francisco club scene, fueled by a young crop of DJ-producers, in addition to wise promoters who've been around the dance music block. Bhangra didn't just drop out of the sky one night and land in San Francisco; rather, it grew from ancient field harvest songs in the Punjab region of northern India, danced through the UK via immigration, mingled with rap stars in New York in the '90s, and finally ended up at eclectic Bay Area parties.

Given the strong Punjabi presence in the West Coast, the strength of bhangra in the region is not a surprise. The article continues:

In 1990 I copped a copy of Indian producer Bally Sagoo's remix of Pakistani Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's "Jewel" (Oriental Star). The mix of reggae-dub bass, Soul II Soul-style hip-hop beats, and ecstatic singing was mind-blowing. But there's no way it prepared me for the nuclear bomb that is contemporary bhangra music and the incredible South Asian scene in the Bay Area.

I knew little about bhangra's early roots as the music embraced by Indian and Pakistani immigrants to Britain in the 1970s and '80s. Then remixes like Jay-Z '03 remake of Panjabi MC's "Mundian To Bach Ke Rahi" sparked my interest.

It's interesting the author didn't come across Bally Sagoo's earlier bhangra mixes (like Mera Laung Gawacha)and Apache Indian'sfirst album No Reservations, which cannily blended bhangra and dancehall reggae to create bhangramuffin and led to its first UK crossover success in the early '90s. The latest legion of Bay Area producers, though, seem to be determined to blend in hip hop with greater vigor than before:

Born in Oakland and based in Tracy, 20-year-old JT Bhachu, a.k.a. DJ JT, got started in music at age 10, playing dhol drums in school competitions. His family moved from the Punjab region in India and settled in the Bay two decades ago. JT mixes hip-hop with bhangra and spins everywhere from high school dances and weddings to the main rooms at clubs – even San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom, where JT and his BPR Promotions friends put on a show with Birmingham, UK, bhangra megastar Sukshinder Shinda last year.

JT still relies on his kin for his creative projects, founding a record label (Sick 'Em Entertainment) with his uncle and recruiting his teenage cousins to play in his Explizit Dholies drum ensemble. "My mission is to bring bhangra into a lot of hip-hop clubs. In the future it'll be the next thing people are talking about when they go out every weekend," he says. His self-confidence and vision are shared by other young desi DJs in the Bay, including producer Kush Arora.

The old style bhangra parties (and we've been to some) could become, not to sugarcoat it, really juvenile affairs. Scuffles over women, not getting enough "respect" and rival gang posturings were not unheard of. Then there's the promos:

"Most bhangra concerts with big singers are in the South Bay," he explains. "These can be fun but usually very cheesy, with fliers that say 'Guys - dress GQ; girls - dress sexy/elegant,' with related bullshit like that, so I really wouldn't consider it a hot party."

There are many other regional music forms in India, but nothing has succeeded so well on such a global scale. Even in India, bhangra was fairly local even until say twenty years ago. The popularity of stars like Daler Mehndiin India in the '90s brought bhangra to the point where no feel-good big budget Bollywood flick could afford not to have such a song in its soundtrack. Outside India, the Punjabi diaspora sustained the scene whereever they settled and the second generation UK and Canadian producers sucked in a whole host of other influences - dub and dancehall, hip hop, garage, and even ambient chillout (listen to Talvin Singh'sHafor examples). It's paying off big time! Not bad for a style of music whose core sound relies on a set of drums and mandolins and conjures traditional images of a bunch of blokes in mixed pattern lungis lunging around in circles. Pretty damn impressive actually.

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- February 4, 2006 3:21 PM // Bay Area , Music